Public safety and social media: Walking the digital beat

Dianna Leighton, Special to The County
11 years ago

   When the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, I was 4 years old. My mother will explain that I tearfully walked into the kitchen and pointed in the general direction of our television set, wailing, “It blew up!” I learned about the Columbine High School shooting from my high school English teacher who stood straight-backed and firm in front of the classroom.

I heard about 9/11 from my college roommate who stumbled into the hallway and whispered, “I just heard on the radio that a plane hit the World Trade Center. But, it was probably a small one or something. Right?” And, when I learned about the Boston Marathon bombings last month, it was through a steady stream of status updates and tweets posted by friends, acquaintances, and strangers … as I sat in a room by myself.
Over the next few days, the sheer volume of information available to any social media user was an overwhelming, dangerous mix of the legitimate and completely falsified. So, I did what many others did: began following the Twitter account of the Boston Police. In fact, according to Project HEROIC (a research collaboration of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and University of California-Irvine focused on emergency management and informal online communication), the @Boston_Police Twitter account saw a 500 percent increase in followers between April 15 and April 19.
What causes 273,422 new users in four days? Increasingly, users are drawn to information sources that are quick, authoritative, and always-on. In turn, public safety departments and law enforcement agencies across the country are interested in finding new ways to engage with these citizens, both in times of emergency and non-emergency.
For the Presque Isle Police Department and Chief Matthew Irwin, this has meant increasing visibility across social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and even Pinterest. With over 27 years in law enforcement, including casework against online predators since 1996, Irwin is no stranger to the complexities of online communications. However, as he explained during a recent interview, he feels that a police presence on social media brings with it more positives than negatives, noting, “The reason that you become a cop is because you’re community-minded.” In turn, the community is also interested in the police department, but opportunities for interaction aren’t always plentiful. Let’s face it, most of us try to spend the bulk of our time doing the appropriate thing and avoiding police attention whenever possible, right?
Thus, social media serves as a public window to the work of local officers … from the comfort of our mobile devices. While dispatchers use the department’s Twitter account (@PresqueIslePD) to quickly alert the public to developing incidents that require real-time updates, Facebook plays a role in providing deeper online engagement. Currently, the department’s Facebook page has 4,277 followers and features content ranging from wanted persons alerts to reflections on community collaborations, from public service announcements to warm holiday wishes. Over time, this has created a direct and authentic voice from PIPD, showcasing the nuance of life in the force, fostering community outreach, and steadily chipping away at the negative stereotype that officers are cold or emotionally detached.
However, this is a window and not a megaphone. 4,277 followers also have the ability to post questions and voice concerns. A risky prospect? Irwin points out that he’s not afraid of the occasional critique, seeing social media as an opportunity to become aware of potential problems and respond accordingly. He points out, “You’re always going to have people that aren’t fans of yours and you’re not going to please everyone, but, I think, generally, if you’re an honest and responsible person, you’re going to acquire the community support you need.”
While he encourages citizens to stick with phone and in-person contact for urgent matters, Irwin also notes that the department has received crime tips and leads through social media connections and, as the Boston Marathon Bombing investigations have indicated, that this is a phenomena that virtually all police departments are working to respond to, be it through staffing, training, or monitoring software.
E-tipsters? Viral wanted posters? The digital beat? It can seem a little surreal to some, but, for the Presque Isle Police Department, it’s all about what The County has always been about: community relationships. Suddenly that room doesn’t feel that empty after all.
To follow Chief Matt Irwin on Twitter, find him at @pimepolicechief and be sure to check out a full list of new municipal Twitter accounts for the City of Presque Isle at
    Dianna Leighton is youth librarian at the Mark & Emily Turner Memorial Library in Presque Isle. Her professional and personal interests include community building, digital media and content creation, and promoting transliteracy skills. In her spare time, she enjoys testing her cooking skills, reading anything she can get her hands on, and sharing stories and experiences with those in her community. Dianna can be reached at (207) 764-2571 or via e-mail at